Thomas Keneally: Australian for History

Published in Features, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Volume 9

HM:    Was your upbringing distinctively Irish?

TK:    Yes, an Irish Catholic one. It began roughly three hundred miles up the coast from Sydney in a town called Kempsey. Kempsey was marked by distinction between white and Aboriginal but there were also religious distinctions within the white community. The Catholics were not exclusively Irish as there were also a lot of Bavarian Germans in the Macleay valley. Because of the Irish empire—the clergy, brothers and nuns—there was the imposition of an Irish mindset which was an awkward fit with a spacious country like Australia. The European God is not in that landscape. Within these parameters it was a very Irish upbringing, so that meeting with anyone who was raised in that same environment in Ireland, one shares an immediate subtext, on Novenas, the Christian Brothers, etc.. I remember we colonial brats being taught to sing ‘Hail Glorious Saint Patrick’ by young Irish novices in a land stricken with the Great Drought in the early years of World War II. In our mythology though, Ireland was this alternative Holy Isle, an Island of Saints and Scholars, though of course it was testing to put that idea side by side with the ham-fisted coppers and publicans with Irish names you knew.

LG:    I am interested to hear you use the expression ‘Irish empire’.

TK:    If one goes to church in Leadville, Colorado or in Gilgandra, New South Wales, or in Tasmania, one sees the same tradition reproduced, the same devotions, the same stain-glass windows, the same sense of death, of having to get the dead out of purgatory, the same Mariology. In that sense it was an empire that was even broader, perhaps than the British Empire. It’s a tradition in which there are the great latitudes, the latitudes about booze and gambling, and those latitudes were very much the case in Australia as well, and in the Irish Catholic Church in America. So, we were aware when we studied for the priesthood of being very much in the tradition of Maynooth or the Irish College at Rome, or of various seminaries from Ireland. We encountered priests who were generally first or second generation Australians but who had an experience of that sort of education. Many had studied in Ireland at various stages and it was obviously a formative experience for them. It was the equivalent for them of a colonial Anglo going to a royal garden party in London. These colonies of Irishdom in immigrant countries were not dependent on boundaries or limitations of sovereignty. They extended beyond the British Empire. What I am saying perhaps is that the Irish have a lot to answer for. It is remarkable, for example, that when I was at New York University there was a luncheon group called the Nine First Fridays made of the survivors and celebrators of that tradition. The now famous McCourts were members before Frank wrote Angela’s Ashes. As a result of being raised in this particular church tradition I shared an automatic argot, a set of myths and formative memories with these American Irish. They were memories of that Irish ecclesiastical and religious empire.

LG:    Wasn’t there a big difference though between the English Benedictine Catholicism in Australia and that of Paul Cullen who had two nephews who were bishops in New South Wales.

Oskar Schlinder (Liam Neeson) welcomes his workers to the safety of his new factory at Brinnlitz—‘The surviving Schlindler community governed how this book [Schlinder’s Ark] should be written.’ (Universal Pictures)

Oskar Schlinder (Liam Neeson) welcomes his workers to the safety of his new factory at Brinnlitz—‘The surviving Schlindler community governed how this book [Schlinder’s Ark] should be written.’ (Universal Pictures)

TK:    Yes, that’s right. The English Benedictines were very powerful in early colonial history. The first Irish priests tended to be more like Father Dixon, a United Irishman who was transported to Australia under an amnesty and was treated with great suspicion. Ultimately it was the spiritual brothers of Cullen who came to dominate the church in Australia. Besides his two nephews there was Cardinal Moran, who was both socially progressive and theologically conservative and who built the seminary in which I studied. Daniel Mannix, one of the most important churchmen in Australian history, was president of Maynooth before coming out to Melbourne. So there was a fairly seamless transition of nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish Catholicism to Australia but with subtleties depending on whether the priest had been trained at Maynooth, Rome or elsewhere. The English Benedictines of colonial times, such as Ullathorne were closer to Cardinal Newman than to Cullen. They were urbane gentlemen, possibly more broadly educated than the Irish and less inclined to factionalism. The Irish clergy were different in style, attitude and philosophy, and they had a powerful desire to populate places with their own people. An example is Bishop Quinn, the first bishop of Queensland, who was rector of St Lawrence O’Toole seminary in Dublin. He managed to persuade a Young Irelander, a surgeon, Kevin Izod O’Doherty to come to Queensland—that is, to re-emigrate, after his pardon in 1854, to the continent of his former imprisonment. If you go to Queensland now, you find it full of people with Irish names with map of Ireland faces blasted by sun and skin cancer. It’s a strange mixture, Queensland—like it’s nineteenth century clergy, socially progressive but politically conservative. Quinn and O’Doherty campaigned against the use of Kanaka labour from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) because they wanted to make Queensland a place appropriate for the Irish immigrant. While the Kanakas were there bringing down the price of labour this was not possible. O’Doherty was elected to the Queensland legislature and brought with him his characteristically Irish mix of social progressivism, democratic passion and Irish vision. Part of his purpose was, however, to stock places like Queensland with the Irish, energetic immigrants, future citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and Children of God. You can see the same impulse operating operating in Montana in roughly the same period, the late 1860s, with Thomas Francis Meagher, where he was trying to use the Jesuits and the US army in a scheme to stock the place with Irish.

HM:    You were going to be a priest at one point in your career. Was that a means of escaping from the Irish proletariat?

TK:    In fact, what was happening in Australia when I was a kid was that the Irish working class were sending their children to the Marist and Christian Brothers, and in one generation, due to the progressive education policies of Chifley, a Labour man of Irish descent, and Menzies, a Conservative of Scottish descent, people were going to university. It was never the case in Australia of being tempted to become a priest as a way out of having to lead a hard life at something else. That didn’t operate in my case because of the very flexibility of Australian society. The way up was clear and there were alternatives to studying for the priesthood. Australian boys tended to go to the seminary for fairly idealistic reasons. They ran up against that same muscular authoritarian quality of the type of Catholicism which is so much written about in Irish literature. It’s funny that what was such a powerful force in my childhood has now nearly vanished even here in Ireland.

HM:    One of your first books was The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. In view of Australia’s recent concern for Aboriginals, it seems to be an early attempt to look at their plight.

Thomas Keneally Australian for History 2TK:    Yes. And probably a wrong-headed one at that, though my heart was in the right place. The impulse to write the book coincided with a referendum vote in 1967 which, by a massive margin, extended to Australian Aboriginals the same civil rights as White Australia. I am very moved and teased imaginatively by the antiquity of Aboriginal occupation; this Aboriginal stewardship was exercised not for six or seven, or two or three generations, as for white Australians, but for thousands of generations. And I was also moved by the idea that there was a pre-European map of Australia. This is the same idea that Bruce Chatwin exploited in Songlines. That there was a map of Australia before Australia was mapped. Australia was typically in European literature and in the European imagination depicted as a mapless place, as a void. The transplanted Europeans tended to look upon the hinterland as a dangerous void and it certainly consumed the Irish explorer Richard O’Hara Burke who died at Cooper’s Creek in the 1860s, when having crossed the continent he was trying to get back to the more temperate South-East. But the antiquity of that civilisation, the fact that there was a pre-European map is something that we need to know, that we need to begin imagining. It gives a different and challenging cast to the proposition that Australia is a young country, as indeed it is. But it is also the oldest country in many ways and the way the parallel planets of the Aboriginal map and the European map abut upon each other is something that I think now fascinates White Australia. It’s like those poems by Seamus Heaney about the bog queen and all the other poems on the bog as a kind of archive. That sense of stored wonder, that’s what Aboriginal Australia is like to us. We cannot understand it from the inside but we can see its works from the outside in the form of Aboriginal Central Australian painting, a depiction of landscape in terms of ritual and men’s camps and women’s camps and so on that happens to look like a modernist painting but is in fact a map of a particular dreaming, of a particular dream cycle. It’s very exciting to look at Australia that way. To quote Chatwin, ‘a succession of Iliads and Odysseys expressed in geological terms’.

HM:    Is there anything unique about the Irish-Aboriginal relationship or is Irishness coterminous with White Australia?.

TK:    In White Australia there were two contradictory tendencies. One says ‘Well, thank God, we are not Aborigines and we are able to rise’. On the other hand, in remoter Australia, where the Irish were often stockmen, there was a great deal of intermarriage between Irish and Aboriginals. A living example of that is the Aboriginal leaders, the two brothers, Pat and Mick Dotson, whose grandfather was an Irish stockman. One of these leaders, Pat, studied for the priesthood and was a priest. He said recently that he felt the Irish should be able to understand Aboriginals because of their own animist tendencies—holy stones, holy wells, spirit-inhabited landscape and the like. In terms of the Irish community generally and in a political sense, the relationship has been a mixed bag. There are always those of Irish descent who remember that they were once despised and who therefore say it’s not right to despise others. Then there are those who have ascended the ladder and want to pull it up after them.

HM:    One of your historical novels Confederates, about the US Civil War, was criticised as ‘faction’. What’s your take on writing history from the point of view of a creative writer?

TK:    As a layman I am fascinated by history. Faction is a difficult term. I’d rather use an equally difficult and contradictory term—’documentary novel’. In Confederates there is a great deal of fiction. Fiction occurs when you read the couple of journals and secondary or primary sources and then you take them wherever you want. I believe that historians and what they write are a product of the human beings they are—where they grew up, their class and their relationship to it, their politics, and so on. Yet they don’t set out to lie. Whereas the novelist actually sets out to tell what you’d call ‘divine lies’, to mix up the material to his advantage. History is exhaustive and fiction is salient. Fiction goes for a salient flash of lightning—the detail which will then light up the entire horror or meaning of the situation. The novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes which depicts men, British and German, underground, burrowing towards each other in order to kill each other—that is a horrifying salient image of World War I. But it is not in a historical sense the whole story of World War I. Fiction is now inhibited by the range of dramas that occur on the evening news and in good documentaries, forms of storytelling not available to our forefathers. So there is a tendency for fiction to imitate current affairs programmes and there was a bit of that in Confederates, in Schindler’s Ark, and in Gossip from the Forest, my book about the signing of the armistice at the end of World War I. Those books have a documentary feel to them. Schindler was written with some of the textures of the novel, but was designed to be accurate. Its material was corrected and amended pre-publication by survivors. A number of survivors, or the spouses of survivors, read the final work and suggested changes. Schindler’s former mistress too, who lived in New York—she wanted her name changed in the final text, but she read her sections as did as many as twelve others, including Leopold Pffefferberg, the Los Angeles shopkeeper who first told me the story of Oskar Schindler. Emilie Schindler was sent her sections of the final work and was asked to correct anything that she didn’t like. Those controls  were necessary because the Holocaust, like the Famine, is almost too big an event in the history of the community to work out what to do with it. Such events are inevitably a source of contention because the question is, how do you live with them, and what do they mean, and therefore what should be one’s attitude in their wake, when something like normal life returns? How does one commemorate events like the Holocaust or the Famine without becoming victims to the extent that the people who were involved in the crisis itself, in the event itself, were? So, there was the importance of the Holocaust, there was the existence of denial and also the scepticism of the general Jewish community towards the idea of a compassionate German rogue. The surviving Schindler community governed how this book should be written—that it should be, as far as it could be, literal truth, but should still have the qualities of narration which accord with those of the novel. I think faction, a literary form of narration in which events and recorded dialogue are interpreted, not invented, is a very valid area for the novel. Schindler is definitely immensely more this sort of work than Confederates was.

HM:    Do you think writing fiction is a better method for dealing with guilt and victimhood than writing history?

TK:    Yes. For example, fiction can show the vigorous survival of the anonymous individual. In Bettany’s Book, there is a character who has to give a lecture about aid to Africa and she talks about the specific depiction of the West Cork Famine woman, a depiction which created a furore of compassion when it appeared in the Illustrated London News. When you write history of the kind that say, my kinswoman, Christine Kinealy, does in her book, This Great Calamity, this individuality of the victims can be referred to from the records, but can also be somewhat lost in the scale of the events depicted. This character of mine in Bettany’s Book, depicts the famine victim of Africa more intimately—a person who might appear on an aid poster, who is already dead by the time we see the picture and whom our aid cannot help, has been an individual, anonymous heroine, has knocked down termite mounds to get the grain which termites have stolen, had mixed her seed crop with sand to prevent herself and her family eating it, had devoured all the native grasses and thistles. You find the same individual effort put into survival during the Irish Famine. It is possible to lose that in mass social history, whereas you can claim it in the novel.

HM:    What you do think when you see your historical novels undergo another transformation into films, as in the case of Jimmie Blacksmith and more recently Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg?

TK:    Film is another way of representing history which, even if it generally messes up literal truth, can yet evoke, at least as a metaphor, a historic reality. Mind you I am dubious about films like The Patriot and Braveheart. I think Spielberg did it better with Schindler. Film is a time-consuming method of narrating in which much has to be left out. Film is always going to be a mere comic strip of history for the reason that so much light and shade has to be omitted. Film would be perfect for the Christian Brothers’ brand of history in which, for example, the Irish landlord is always an unalloyed baddie.

LG:    Not only have you written about the Irish Famine in The Great Shame and the Holocaust in Schindler’s Ark but you have also drawn parallels between the two.

TK:    Well, both calamities have their historical revisionists, though the revisionists of the Holocaust are altogether of a different magnitude. These events are of a vast scale and central to both peoples’ historical experience. There are other similarities. For example, the Nazis in the 1930s had plans to repatriate the Jews from Europe to Madagascar. As the Nazis moved from random to systematic violence, the Jews had to find Madagascars of their own. Some of them took themselves off as far as Australia, others went to New Jersey and elsewhere. In the same way you find plans to move the Irish out, destined for other Madagascars. In the seventeenth century there was the Cromwellian transportation of the Irish as white slaves to the West Indies. In the nineteenth century Irish convicts and political prisoners were sent to Australia, and many emigrants found their way abroad through a realtively  benign process of assisted emigration. The Limerick landlord Lord Monteagle, in order to clear his lands, encouraged his tenants to go to Australia under a self-defined ‘humane emigration scheme’ paid for by moneys raised through sale of Crown Land (seized Aboriginal ground, by the way) in Australia.  William Smith O’Brien, another landlord, ran a similar emigration scheme to America. He ended up being transported himself to Tasmania for his part in the 1848 rebellion!
Of course, the interesting thing is that anti-Semitism wasn’t just a German phenomenon. In 1904 Fr Creagh, a young Redemptorist priest, led a boycott against the Jews in Limerick. His preaching wasn’t all that different from the preaching of Luther on the same subject. The church packed him out of the way to Australia! And anti-Irishness wasn’t just confined to Oliver Cromwell. Charles Trevelyan, when the Irish were starving and he in a position of responsibility which might have averted the catastrophe, wrote in 1848 his infamous treatise on the Famine in which he compared the Irish to South Sea Islanders, languid and uncivilised and deserving of the fate which had befallen them.

HM:    One final question. You were a founder and chairperson of the Australian Republican Movement. Is there an Irish element in your brand of Australian republicanism?.

TK:    Monarchism is out of kilter with the passionate egalitarianism of Australia, though it’s by no means an equal society. My Irish background and my grandparents’ irreverence for the monarchy was a formative influence. However, the only grounds to be an Australian republican are matters to do the geo-political situation of Australia, and the question of Australia’s own convenience. To Asia the monarchy in Australia seems a white supremacist delusion, nor does it serve for us an organic constitutional purpose. Our relationship to Asia makes our looking back to this white imperial institution a very suspect impulse on our part. And so, I am a republican for the sake of the Italians, the Czechs, the Serbs, the Lithuanians, the Thais, the Indonesians, the Turks of Australia, who can’t work out why they have to take oaths to the queen. Irish history means a lot, and you find that most people of Irish descent are republicans. They were always willing to acknowledge their place in the Commonwealth of Australia and were willing to practice the Australian values of tolerance and egalitarianism and all the rest of it. But they didn’t see what that had to do with the monarchy. My grandfather would not stand up for ‘God Save the Queen’ in the cinema and I was embarrassed by that, but I have an understanding of why he did it. His republicanism might have been based on Irish republicanism. Mine is based on that very different, constitutional beast named Australian republicanism.

Larry Geary lectures in history at University College Cork. Hiram Morgan is joint editor of History Ireland.

TK:    Yes. And probably a w


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